Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | The theme was San Diego history. I was allotted three minutes to speak at a dinner for 440 prominent San Diegans the other night. Several of us were to talk about history. It was a gathering of many of the 525 people whom Fred Lewis has interviewed on ITV’s Heart of San Diego citizen profiles during the past ten years.

The other speakers were charming or funny or both. I looked out at all those bright and powerful people who must now rescue this city and suddenly the dour Welshman in me erupted. I didn’t feel funny.

I talked about the inglorious chapter of future history that we in San Diego are creating right now at this moment. Our descendants will read about this and wonder how a prosperous city like ours, blessed by nature and a large number of uncommonly bright and often affluent people, could have gone so ugly broke. It seems distant from our usual bland sanity.

The audience was startled and grew deathly silent. Perhaps we were all a little ashamed together. I talked about the names and faces within this all-star audience. Any 50 of those 440 dinner guests, I said, including myself, could have convened to help head off this mess at City Hall if we had given proper continuing attention to city government over the years and had not always accepted the blithe words of political allies; and if we had talked back at anyone who told us to relax, that it was all just politics and everybody does it.

Much of it is our own fault because we forget about the people we elect so soon after the elections are over. A claque of lobbyists pretends to represent us at City Hall, but one might choose to be skeptical about their loyalties.

As citizens and taxpayers, we are buyers of governance, but we are not beware. During the past year, day after day, I found San Diegans shaking their heads and laughing about how screwed up things were at City Hall. It was wonderful fodder for coffee talk each morning. We all joked about the crooks down at City Hall, forgetting that City Hall is us.

The San Diego media must be faulted, too, because each time that Mayor Murphy announced that everything was going well, we in the media tended to parrot his words and appeared to believe him. Everybody wants to believe Dick Murphy. He’s a nice guy, a former judge. Surely he’s not lying to us.

A splendid example of how this could have been stopped sooner comes with the now renowned letter from Richard Vortmann, a long respected executive of National Steel and Shipbuilding and a member of the now defamed city pension board. Mayor Murphy wisely nominated him to serve on a citizens’ volunteer committee to study city finances.

It was way back in 2002, tens of millions of dollars ago, as the pension board measures time. Vortmann and his committee gave City Council a report of approval of city finances.

But two weeks later, Vortmann did something rare and praiseworthy. He wrote his committee colleagues that “…we possibly did a disservice by not ringing a very loud bell that…the city’s fiscal health is not what it appears” and that “painful” fixes will cause “reduced services and/or increased taxes and fees.”

It was the mayor’s committee, but the mayor says he never saw the letter. Mayor Murphy’s collection of alibis has now reached book-length. His answer has clearly interested the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is investigating a charge that the city overlooked those details in sworn documents available to city bond investors.

One year ago, the suggestion (in my newspaper column) of the attorney Pat Shea (who figured in the Orange County bankruptcy case) that bankruptcy might lie ahead of the city was scoffed at in every quarter. Ten days ago, the suggestion here of former mayor Pete Wilson that the city should file Chapter 9 bankruptcy was considered extreme. Now serious people see it as a viable option.

In San Diego just now, the unthinkable of today becomes the tired and often dreadful old news of tomorrow. No one in this government is anxious to even start to fix things without feeling the whiplash of angry public opinion. There’s logic to that: The deeper in we get to the mess, the worse they look. That’s why agents are here from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But we are the ones who are stuck with this. Speak up. E-mail your city councilman. E-mail the mayor. They may not see your messages, but some aide will tell them how many messages came and how angry they are. We are all responsible to get San Diego out of this mess.

In future columns, Neil Morgan will discuss creating San Diego’s future.

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